Tia Fuller’s third release on Mack Avenue Records, Angelic Warrior, marks her deep-rooted evolution as an instrumentalist, composer and bandleader. After five years in Beyoncé’s band, the pop diva’s attention to detail in the studio rubbed off on Fuller. She has since developed a heightened focus in the editing, mixing and mastering process of Angelic Warrior, as the producer. And as the Assistant Musical Director for Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society touring band, Fuller applies her pop and jazz chops on behalf of some of the hottest artists in music today.
On Angelic Warrior, Fuller makes an aesthetic statement that’s fully her own. The album celebrates the peaceful demeanor of the ‘angel’ and the drive and determination of the ‘warrior’ spirit within. Fuller says, “While writing this album, I was balancing different aspects in my life and career…trying to pull from the ‘warrior’ energy, while remaining graceful in my spirit. We can all celebrate the Angelic Warrior within ourselves by trusting in our vision, doing the work and maintaining a level of peace.” In addition, Angelic Warrior pays homage to the angels in Fuller’s life: her family and friends. “I wanted to celebrate core individuals who serve as pillars of inspiration,” she says.
A shift in the texture of Fuller’s front-line on Angelic Warrior is further evidence of her expansion as an artist. Instead of sharing the front-line with trumpet, this time it is with John Patitucci on piccolo bass (which can easily be mistaken for guitar).
“It was an exciting challenge for me, because I was expanding upon a new concept to utilize the electric bass as both a melodic and harmonic voice…playing contrapuntal lines with me,” Fuller states. Patitucci’s virtuosity and versatility is heard throughout, such as on “Royston Rumble” where he plays both melody and bass lines.
The piano and drum chairs are held by Fuller’s sister Shamie Royston, and her brother-in-law Rudy Royston respectively, both to whom the first number “Royston’s Rumble” is dedicated. Fuller calls the opening part of the song a “beautiful duel.” She considers them role models because they set an example of work ethic and perseverance in the course of a marriage approaching two decades—“I wanted to celebrate their unconditional love for each other.”
Drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr. is the inspiration for “Ralphie’s Groove,” a sultry song with a sexy beat derived from Peterson’s “Surrender,” itself inspired by a creative synthesis of Ahmad Jamal’s “Poinciana” and Tony Williams’ “Sister Cheryl.”
The album’s third track, “Angelic Warrior” is inspired by elements of Terri Lyne Carrington’s GRAMMY® Award- winning recording, The Mosaic Project and the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” On the title track, the melody line on soprano soars as the drums play a military beat—Fuller “wanted to sonically portray the ‘angel’ in the melody and evolve to the ‘warrior’ element, reflecting the feeling of going to war. On a daily basis, we, as people, deal with so many things that require us to tap into that warrior spirit.” Carrington is the inspiration for this song, “She encompasses the graceful, yet warrior spirit, who has blazed the pathway for many musicians and female instrumentalists,” Fuller says.
Carrington explains, “From playing with great horn players like Wayne Shorter and Stan Getz, I just wanted to help and encourage her. I fell in love with Tia’s playing. She has a lot of respect for the history of the music and has done her homework.”
“Lil’ Les,” composed at the request of Leslie Browder, is a calming song that evokes the innocence of a children’s tune. Fuller conceived it for Browder’s then-unborn child, Lesleigh Marie Browder. “This song was actually the first that I wrote for the album. As a ‘toy playing’ theme for Lesleigh.”
Fuller’s father would call for “Body and Soul” when they’d gig together back in Colorado, her birthplace. “Here I’m paying homage to my mom and dad, the body and soul of the family. I wanted to incorporate a solid bass line to represent my father [bassist Fred Fuller] and feature master vocalist, Dianne Reeves, to celebrate my mother [vocalist Elthopia Fuller]. What a dream come true to have Dianne featured on this arrangement.”
Fuller wrote her originals over a period of five months while on the road. For example, she sang the melody and bass line of “Descend to Barbados” into her voicemail when about to touch down in Barbados. Dedicated to good friend Mimi Jones, Fuller states, “Having come from Barbadian parents, Mimi has ‘Descended from Barbados,’ and serves as the ultimate groove master.”
Structurally, “Ode to Be” is at the midpoint and end of the recording. Musically, she says, it’s “a musical pause, allowing the album to breathe. The title has a dual meaning: an ode to Beyoncé spurred by a song she sang in a dream, and an ode to just ‘being’.”
“So In Love With All of You” is felicitous melding of two Cole Porter compositions. Carrington’s arrangement, reminiscent of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence,” inspirits the intro to this Porter tribute. The sax, bass and drum trio allows the longtime musical kinship between Carrington and Patitucci (having both played with Wayne Shorter) to be explored further. Fuller improvises on top of Carrington’s cymbals like a surfer riding a wave as Patitucci provides a rhythmic and harmonic seabed.
“Tailor Made” is a rock-out backbeat tune Fuller penned for lifelong friend, Ed Legin. “We always talk about how you have to tailor-make your life for you. He loves R&B from the ‘70s.” What better way to pay nostalgic homage to R&B than with a head-bopping groove inspired by another good friend, Esperanza Spalding and her song “Winter Sun.” The short ballad “Core of Me” is a “celebration of the self, coming to a place of reflection and being comfortable in your own skin. Embracing who you are.” “Simpli-City” begins basic, with sweet swing. Then urban complications enter, thus capturing the “duality: simple vs. complicated.” For “Cherokee,” Carrington’s crafty arrangement grounds the rhythm in a hybrid jungle beat. “Terri Lyne and Rudy were playing simultaneously with this version. Two drummers plus a drum track! Merging the experience of house music meets jazz tradition,” reflects Fuller.
Of Fuller’s saxophone performance, Carrington says: “She plays with the kind of aggression that men do. My dad says, Tia’s a woman playing that horn like it’s supposed to be played. He’s old-school. I understood what he meant.” You will too when hearing the searing bite and intelligence-grounded-in-feeling of Fuller’s alto and soprano sax. On alto, she’s like a warrior—her fire and punch, as well as rhythmic freedom and drive are obvious to listeners. Furthermore, her soulful soprano sax styling is the angelic voice in her sound spectrum.
Fuller’s aesthetic statement on Angelic Warrior is grounded in a jazz mode of expression that embraces both the classic and the contemporary sounds surrounding her. It’s no mistake that artists from Ralph Peterson, Jr. and Esperanza Spalding to Terri Lyne Carrington and Beyoncé include her instrumental voice and vision in their work. With this recording, Tia Fuller surfaces clearly, rising to the top of her generation of musicians. Fusing traditions, styles, and unafraid of genre boundaries, Fuller’s music transgresses the musical frontiers of today, manifest to last well into the future.